Thai Civilization/Religions and Traditions

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Religions and Traditions[edit]

Most Thais are Buddhists. Ruth Gerson (1996) has written:

"Thailand is predominantly a Theravada Buddhist country with a population that devoutly follows the teachings of the Buddha. (p. 3)"

Religions & Beliefs in Thailand

Religion is considered an essential pillar of Thai society. It is not only the major moral force of Thai family and community, but it has also contributed to the molding of freedom-loving, individualistic, and tolerant people for many centuries.

Theravada or Hinayana Buddhism is the national religion of Thailand but there is total religious freedom and all major religions can be found in practice. The right to practice any religion in Thailand is protected by the constitution.

Buddhism, however, is the faith of 95 percent of the population, 4 percent are Muslims, 0.5 percent are Christians, and the remainder Hindus, Sikhs, and other religions. Despite the fact that Buddhism is the faith of majority, both the king and the government uphold and support all the religions accepted by the people. Amidst rich diversity of beliefs, the people of Thailand have always lived together in peace and harmony.

The Three Belief Systems

They are Animism, Brahmanism (Hinduism), and Buddhism.

Before the introduction of Buddhism, what did they believe in? Historical evidence shows that Thais believed in Hinduism and animism. Today, Thai society portrays the harmony combination of three belief systems: Animism, Hinduism, and Buddhism.

Animism is a word derived from Latin animus or ‘soul’. The belief of animism is probably one of man's oldest beliefs, with its origin most likely dating from the Paleolithic age. Animism basically means that every object, even inanimate ones possess a soul or spirit.

Animism has been practicing in Thailand in various forms, and one of which is ancestor-worship. It is a primitive belief of the Thai people. Animism forms the first layer of Thai religion. On top of the first layer is the combination/integration of Brahmanism and Buddhism.

Brahmanism refers to the earlier state of Hinduism that arrived at the Suwannabhumi region before the arrival of Buddhism. A lack of historical evidence makes it difficult to say exactly when Brahmanism entered Thailand. However, on the basis of available evidence, it can be conjectured that the influence of the religion dates from the Dvāravatī period (6th - 11th centuries). At that time the Khmer Empire held sway over much of what is now Thailand and Brahmanism were then well established in Cambodia.

Today, there are some 15-20 Brāhmanas or priests in Thailand of which 11 are attached to the Bureau of the Royal Household under the patronage of His Majesty the King and who perform the Royal rites on ceremonial days such as the annual Royal Ploughing Ceremony held in May at the Meru Ground next to the Grand Palace.

Being of the Shaivite sect, Thai Brāhmanas worship Śiva as their Supreme God, although there are others in the pantheon. This does not clash with Buddhism since, most people pray and make offerings to the devas (deities) for good fortune and to make special requests. The everyday practice of Buddhism can incorporate this.

As Buddhism and Hinduism were evolved from one and the same source, i.e. Brahmanism, there was no hindrance to their assimilation. Later on came Buddhism and most Thais adopted it as their national religion. The Thai inherited a fair proportion of Hinduism through the influence of the Cambodians who were in former days a society that practiced Hinduism.

Whatever cults and beliefs are adopted by the Thai people, they are readily modified to suit their temperament and surroundings. When they adopted Buddhism, they greatly modified their basic belief of animism into the fold of Buddhism. Likewise, when they embraced Hinduism, they adapted it as a subordinate to the former.

There is a Thai saying, particularly among the Thai of the central area where Hinduism still has some force with the elite class, that "Buddhism and Hinduism usually uphold each other".

Even though the vast majority of Thais are Buddhist, animistic beliefs are still a big part of daily life for a big portion of the Thais. Thais are generally a superstitious race.

In summary, Buddhism in a modified form (Animism, Hinduism, and Buddhism) is the mainspring of the national life. The problem is how well we can preserve this tradition against the aggressiveness of the new materialistic force of the present civilization. Thailand cannot neglect or ignore the powerful force which besets her with many dangers if her traditional ideals are not to be uprooted suddenly.

Give an example of Thai-style practices that reflect the combination of the three belief systems (animism, Hinduism, and Buddhism).

Why do you think superstition has woven into the Thai way of life and Thai Buddhism?

Give three examples of Thai superstitions.

What do Buddhists believe? Do you believe in karma?

Many Thais are very superstitious, e.g. they hold on to the magic power of amulets, charms, etc. We have learned from media that there are many monks and Wats involved in this trade which makes it even more confusing. It is almost voodoo-like with a belief that amulets possess special powers and magic based on what it is composed of and which monk from which temple blessed it, etc. These are examples of Thai superstitions. What do you think of the Thai saying "Do not despise/defame any belief or practice if you do not believe in it.”? Should we embrace or abandon it? Why?

Some say that, although Thais have studied modern science for more than a century, the set of beliefs constitutive of modern science still has yet to permeate into the cultural fabric. Do you agree with this statement?